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Reading the Body Language of Leadership


Researchers at MIT are focusing the latest sensor technology on the physical traits of leadership

Humans instinctively transmit signals that date back to our primal roots. People use vocal tones and cadence to establish dominance or trust. Or they impose their will by showing up late to meetings or feigning lack of interest when others speak.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are focusing the latest sensor technology on such behavior in the workplace. Using high-tech badges that transmit data on an individual's gestures, eye movements, voice levels, and even proximity to other people, MIT is parsing the physical traits of leadership. Along with highlighting effective managers, researchers hope the data will help train workers to be more effective at everything from networking to dealing with customers.

Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland, who heads the research through MIT's Human Dynamics lab, argues that the technology goes beyond anything captured in a typical personality test. With it, he notes, "you can suddenly look at hundreds of people on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis." In call centers, for example, the MIT team predicts successes and flubs by studying patterns of listening and voice modulations. (Workers with high scores listen more and alter their voice to express interest.) The unit is working with companies such as Hitachi and Bank of America to study employee communication patterns.

While MIT's methods are beyond the technical range of most companies, the science of human behavior is becoming more accessible to everyone. A host of everyday technologies from Web cams to corporate IDs with radio tags can provide ever richer behavioral data. Companies may soon be able to size up both employees and job applicants—not only by experience and skills but also by the nature of their inner ape.

Return to the Game-Changing Management Ideas Table of Contents

Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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